August 02, 2007
Old Sixth Ward protections pass City Council

At long last, City Council has finally approved the much anticipated historic district ordinance for the Old Sixth Ward.

Preservationists hailed the 12-1 vote as a new era in Houston's cultural consciousness.

The 33-acre protected district contains the highest concentration of historic homes in Houston, many dating back to the late 19th century. The neighborhood has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

"We're very happy," said Jane Cahill of the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association. "We were afraid the trend of abolishing the neighborhood's historic construction would continue."

I'm very happy about this. This has been a long time coming, and the folks in the Old Sixth have worked their keisters off to get to this point. My hat is off to them for their accomplishment. To add to what Jane Cahill said, here's a statement I got from Larissa Lindsay, also of the OSWNA:

What does this mean? Two primary things 1)"No Means No" when it comes to demolitions and inappropriate development of historic properties; and 2) that additions and new construction will need to follow design guidelines in a recently developed Pattern Book that addresses scale, mass and height, but not architectural style.

Special thanks goes to the current crew leading the charge - Jane Cahill, Leigh Hollins, Brett Mize, JD Bartell, Chuck Stava, and Claude Anello - and to all those who came before them who made great strides in laying the groundwork for protecting the OSW. There are too many to list (and I would miss people) of folks who have been going to City Council over many years, advocating for the Old Sixth Ward. Your efforts have paid off, we have a victory!

And here's more from the story about what this actually means:

Construction and restoration in the district now will be guided by design regulations -- some mandatory, some suggested.

For example, overhanging roof eaves are suggested, while flat roofs are forbidden on residential buildings.

The protections represent ''a huge turning point," said Lynn Edmundson, executive director of Historic Houston.

''Now that it's been established once, it could, in fact, be asked for by the other historic districts," Edmondson said.

But city officials cautioned that no precedent was being set.

"The mayor did not intend Old Sixth Ward to be a road map for other neighborhoods to follow," said Jill Jewett, White's assistant for cultural affairs. "It warranted special treatment."

Individual property owners can request designation of their buildings as protected landmarks, Jewett said. The designation triggers tax benefits and remains even after the property is sold.

While I agree that this action shouldn't set a precedent, I do think that there are other neighborhoods (some of which are mentioned later in the story) that should be considered for similar protections if enough of the residents there want them. Rather than make such folks reinvent the wheel, I think it would make sense to create some guidelines for what would allow a neighborhood to qualify for a Sixth Ward-style preservation ordinance, much like we now have one for historic commercial structures and the tax break for which they can get. These guidelines can be restrictive as needed (at least 100 years old, two-thirds majority of residents approving, blah blah blah), but it's got to be better to have something known and consistent that can be used when appropriate rather than coming up with a unique set of hurdles to be cleared each time.

Houstonist and the City Hall blog have more, including the following reminder from the latter that what happened yesterday wasn't all good:

The council, however, delayed for a week a vote to grant landmark status to the River Oaks Theatre, River Oaks Shopping Center, Shepherd Alabama Shopping Center and the Alabama Theatre.

Unlike the new protections for the Old Sixth Ward, this landmark designation wouldn't stop the property owner, Weingarten Realty Investors, from demolishing or altering the buildings. Under the city's current preservation ordinance, the owner only has to wait 90 days after the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission ruled against it.

The planned demolition of the northeast section of the River Oaks Shopping Center at West Gray and Shepherd could begin August 8 -- the date the council is expected to consider the landmark designation.

As one preservationist noted today, that could make the panel appear "impotent" in protecting historic structures in Houston.

It's always something, isn't it? I can see why Council might be reluctant to step in at this last minute to bar Weingarten from bulldozing the shopping center. It's hard to imagine Weingarten not fighting back vigorously. That shouldn't stop them from taking a stand on the part of the center that includes the River Oaks Theater, or the nearby Alabama BookStop, however. We'll see if Council has the stones for that next week.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 02, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

I've been to the Alabama Bookstop twice in the last 2 weeks for my Potter and newest read. Remember to speak with your dollars!

Posted by: Bill on August 2, 2007 10:16 AM